Like the other mornings, the routine is pretty much the same—hot breakfast, clean up, pack, and head out.
We quickly gain elevation on this climb out of the Upper Kern Canyon. Before long, we are looking back down the canyon that is open to the clear blue sky. Then, we join Wallace Creek and hike alongside it. Along the trail, Wayne and I share stories of the meaning of the Sabbath and of relationship. Mark hikes ahead and loses the group. Near the campsite where Mark originally wanted to stay, just before the flat section, we step around a huge pile of bear droppings, bright red from the meal of ripe berries.
At the junction before the Wallace Creek ford, we catch up to Mark, finding him rested, shoes off, sitting on a low boulder. He had already eaten, treated water, and taken a nap. At least, that’s what he wants us to believe, maybe to bruise our egos. We have a quick snack and rehydrate here. This is the official end of the High Sierra Trail. Across the creek, we step onto the Pacific Crest Trail and the John Muir Trail, along a section where they intertwine as one.
Mark and I set off along this section, hiking in an out of sporadic stands of pine trees. The trail brings us to pretty Sandy Meadow. Wide open, this meadow drains into Whitney Creek below, and beyond, on the other side of the Kern Canyon, broad Red Spur obscures much of the Great Western Divide. The Kaweah Peaks Ridge pokes from behind, though, vying for attention. Around the bend, Mark tells me that he likes going with people who know how to backpack; he now puts me in that category. I tell him I finally feel affirmed: “Nice to now be categorized as someone who knows how to backpack.” This is good.
We find Wayne waiting for us at the next junction, the one leading to toward the Crabtree Ranger Station. Earlier, Mickey started a bet with Mark that he wouldn’t be able to hold out and not use the wag bag; if Mark succeeded, he’d get free ice cream. Mark feels the urge and takes off for Ranger Station, where there is supposed to be a toilet. Beyond that point, as instructed by Ranger Ben, we will be entering the Mt. Whitney zone where wag bag use will be enforced. I had told Mickey and Mike that we’d rendezvous at this junction, and after waiting for some time and now getting hungry, with Mark taking all the food with him, Wayne urges me to go on ahead.
I take the spur trail at the junction to the Ranger Station. Next to the sign, there is a big plastic box full of wag bags along with instructions on how to use them. I already have two in my pack, as does Mark and everyone else. Across the creek near the Ranger Station, I find Mark snacking under the shade of a stunted pine tree. I join him briefly, but fearing that the others might not know that I had taken the spur, I hike back to the junction and arrange my trekking pole to signal the right turn.
The others soon join us, and we visit the Ranger Station. Wayne is amazed at the workmanship and attention to detail that has gone into this cabin’s construction. He and Mickey enjoy the lounge chairs, sitting on the porch, watching the wind carry messages from the Tibetan prayer flags to some other realm. We decide that there is plenty of time to kick back around here. Several of us take naps under the spindly pine’s shadow.
Mark and I, having been there the longest, grow restless and decide to leave first. Mickey isn’t with us, so I offer to go look for him. I find him waiting at the junction near the box of wag bags. I drop my pack and run back to tell Wayne and Mike that we’re ready to take off.
The three of us take off ahead. Mickey tells Mark and me stories of former students who had poor patient interviewing skills. The story finishes about the same time we reach Timberline Lake. Along its beautiful northern shore, we take a few pictures. Ryan and I did the same thing years ago. Then, we reach Guitar Lake. It’s still early in the afternoon, and having found some good campsites amongst the tent city, I decide to set up. Mickey wonders if we should go on to the lake above so that tomorrow’s trip will be more bearable, but I was mentally done with hiking today.
While setting up, Wayne and Mike join us. “So we’ve decided to camp here?” Wayne asks Mickey. I tell myself that Wayne is probably thinking, again, that I am somehow getting the group to do what I want. Anyways, everyone seems to agree that this is a good place. There are nice open spots on the top of a bluff overlooking the clear lake, near the lake itself, and also not too far from the inlet creek. I scout out the scenes and orient out the North Star with compass in hopes of getting good star trails. I know the moon will be out and very bright tonight, and with the clear skies, there is a good chance that I can get some interesting shots with the camera and tripod. The ground is hard, so instead of pounding stakes for the tent vestibules, I loop one of the stakes and find a rock to anchor it. Lifting up the rock reveals used toilet paper; at least it’s not fresh, having been scorched by the sun and partly disintegrated by the intense ultraviolet light. I haven’t used the wag bag yet, but I feel pretty certain that this is within the Whitney poop-free zone. Disgusted at the sight, I shift the tent a little bit and find another anchor.
We clean up. Mickey finds himself a nice spot to bask under the warm afternoon sun. Mark cannonballs into the lake and sustains a small cut. Because this is a lake, I tiptoe in and carefully skim the top layer of water, trying not to stir up nasty sediment during my shower; I manage to stay pretty clean.
Dinner tonight is Tom Kha soup with Pad Thai, and I’ve been looking forward to this meal since I packed it. For the soup, I have a packet of chili paste I made several weeks ago by slow roasting key ingredients in palm sugar and oil. In the wilderness, with so many meals of dried food, the crunchy julienned carrots and lime wedges will brighten the main dish with a spark of freshness. We first have soup, then noodles topped with crushed peanuts, then soup again. On this cold evening, this is perfect.
Guitar Lake sits on a high bench, with the head and neck of the guitar facing west. On the opposite end, Mt. Whitney stares down at the instrument’s body. We camp right in the indentation, where the guitar would rest one someone’s thigh. The sun is setting, and I tell Mark I’m going to hike up the trail to the slopes flanking the base of the guitar and enjoy the sunset and its afterglow. He is disinterested. I should have gone up earlier, because now, the sun has already dipped behind the Great Western Divide. I helped with the dishes but without the pink bucket, and we made one too many trip to the stream; this delay cost me the sunset view. All that is left is the orange band of alpenglow, and the hike is definitely worth it.
It’s time for some evening shots. After all, I’ve been getting good use out of my camera and tripod. Mike’s green tent is lit in front of the craggy slopes. After astronomical twilight—again I wonder if Mark knows what that is—I set up at the pre-scouted spot, compose my shot around the tent, Polaris, and Mt. Hale, dial in the settings, and open the shutter. I plan for an 85-minute exposure equivalent. There is really only one chance to do this, as I wasn’t planning to get up in the middle of this freezing night. Besides, we all need the rest for tomorrow’s big day.